Margaret Evans: The deadly gap between Egypt's competing narratives

Whether for or against the country's deposed president, Egypt's competing camps are growing increasingly entrenched, Margaret Evans reports. Listening to their personal stories, it is hard to see any common ground.

Pro-Morsi, anti-Morsi, the different camps are increasingly entrenched

An injured supporter of deposed president Mohammed Morsi stands on Sixth of October Bridge in central Cairo late Monday following clashes with police and passers-by. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters)

Misfortune visited upon families is hard enough in ordinary circumstances. When it happens in the midst of great national turmoil, as in Egypt right now, it can get caught up in the march of history, snatching from the people living through it the personal nature of their grief.

Take the family of Mustapha Abdel Basset, a 36-year-old father of two who was shot when the Egyptian army opened fire earlier this month on the crowds protesting against the continued detention of deposed president Mohammed Morsi.

We met at Cairo's morgue as they waited for hours in the hot sun to collect the body. Abdel Basset had died of his injuries in hospital the day before.

Abdel Fateh Awad says his nephew, who worked for a food processing company, was hit by army snipers when friends asked him to help carry the injured to safety in the midst of the pre-dawn chaos outside the Presidential Guard's headquarters on July 8.

The army says it came under attack and was provoked into responding. The pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, who have camped outside the nearby Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, deny it. 

When the coroner's certificate finally arrived that would release Abdel Basset's body into their custody, the family was distraught. There was no mention of a gunshot wound; the report said only that the cause of death was due to bleeding from an "initial" wound.

The family is convinced the omission is an attempt to shield the army from culpability. Abdel Basset's brother, Mohammed, says his brother supported Morsi because he believed in the importance of a religious state. He blames Egyptian army chief Abdel Fatteh el-Sissi for his brother's death.

But, in the end, they took Abdel Basset's body with them that day, the burial being already late by Muslim tradition.

"We have no choice, we have to take him," said his uncle Awad. "Because he's been here a long time and all the village is waiting for him. So we will taken him and fight for the report later on."

A Pharaonic people?

Asked how he views Egypt's future, Awad said he hoped it would include a return to democracy, which for him meant having Morsi back in office, however unlikely that appears at the moment.

The size of the pro-Morsi demonstrations in recent weeks have been almost as large as the ones that demanded his ouster earlier this year. (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

"We have concerns [about] a return to the police state of Hosni Mubarak's regime," he said.

In other parts of Cairo, though, there are certainly some who are longing for just that, or at least for the return of a strongman capable of restoring order.

"We are a Pharaonic people" one man, a baker, said, in the narrow, dusty streets behind Cairo's al-Azhar mosque, twinkling banners of silver paper criss-crossing the streets in honour of the holy month of Ramadan.

All the uncertainty and the economic downslide in the two and a half years since Hosni Mubarak was pushed from power seems to have fed that feeling, feeding disaffection.

Twenty-two year old Zizou works in his father's studio behind the mosque, fashioning boxes with mother of pearl inlay.

"Each day, two or three hours no electric light," he says. "We spend one year without oil. To put oil in my car, two or three hours at the station. Even water, four or five hours with no water."

He wants economic salvation and he doesn't care who delivers it. "Me," he says when I ask him what he thinks about the military coup, "I want business. More money that's it. Morsi, no Morsi, I don't care."

Another man, a few streets over in the much shinier Khan el Khalili tourist market, says that, for him, it's not about Morsi anymore, but the principle of his now lost vote.

"After 30 years with Mubarak, we found democracy and we go to the voting boxes," he said, asking how Egyptians can trust any system now.

The other Egypt

These are the in-betweeners, if you like. But for many other Egyptians, like the ones who took to the streets to demand Morsi's resignation, there is deep hatred for the former president, particularly among liberal intellectuals.

For them a popular coup removing from power someone they saw as a Muslim Brotherhood puppet is just as legitimate as a popular uprising, even if it raises the spectre of the kind of military dictatorship that has run the country before.

An Iftar feast, breaking the daily fast during the month of Ramadan, is being held outdoors in Tahrir Square this year, at least partly as a show of support for the popular uprising that led to Morsi's ouster. (Margaret Evans / CBC)

It is "like a big, big stone that was kept over our chests is gone," the Egyptian actress Laila Ezzalarab told me in Tahrir Square last week during an Iftar feast, the daily breaking of the fast for Ramadan.

This feast is being held outdoors this year in the square in a kind of counter-protest against the pro-Morsi sit-ins taking place elsewhere.

"We have oxygen in the air again," she said, describing Egypt as one family.

When I asked her about the "other Egypt," the one that feels cheated of its election victory and is still camped out in another part of town, her response was unhesitating.

"Our country was going down the drain," she says. "They don't understand up until now because they are manipulated by their religious feelings or sentiments."

In Tahrir Square right now, many are annoyed that the Muslim Brotherhood has tried to don the mantle of democracy despite the fact that Morsi had little qualms when he granted himself extra-judicial powers back in November.

"Egypt is making history," says Ezzelarab. "As we did a popular coup, we're going to have our own democracy built in a few years."

'This is not Denmark'

In the wake of Morsi's ouster by the military, some analysts have been busy predicting the demise of political Islam, not just in Egypt but elsewhere across the Middle East.

That's a pretty big assumption, as is the notion that democracy will automatically take up root in the aftermath of what has been a very deliberate army operation — however popular it might have been with many.

Hisham Kassem is a political analyst who has become increasingly frustrated, both with the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, and with the Western journalists who he feels continue to misinterpret Egypt.

"Am I happy with the way things happened? Certainly not," he says, in his Cairo flat not far from Tahrir Square. But he notes that the mistake people make is in treating Egypt as if it was a democracy in the first place. "This is not Denmark!" he says.

"I was hoping Mohammed Morsi, a political adversary, would have taken a completely different course. But when I see that he was taking the country to be part of an Islamic Republic, I am sorry. That's not what he was voted in for."

Kassem says the Brotherhood misplayed its hand and now they are left "in a very difficult situation because it's either going to be another 80 years before another Brotherhood can emerge, or possibly the end of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt." 

That is a real possibility because Egypt's new military-backed regime is busy holding Muslim Brotherhood leaders in detention and freezing their assets, as it did for decades under earlier, authoritarian rulers.

And it is increasingly clear that Muslim Brotherhood supporters feel this threat. There were more deadly clashes involving pro-Morsi demonstrators on Monday and early Tuesday this week in four different locations in Cairo.

Seven people were killed, some in clashes with security forces, others, it was reported, in fighting involving local residents.

Kassem insists that none of the Brotherhood arrests have been made without proper judicial reference and oversight — no matter that Egypt's judiciary has been bent and stretched and compromised by the events of the past two years, not to mention the long decades of dictatorship under Mubarak.

Abdel Fateh Awad says his nephew, Mustapha Abdel Basset, was killed by army snipers while participating in a pro-Morsi rally on July 8. (Margaret Evans / CBC)

He also refuses to accept the notion that Egypt has returned to the hardline methods of the past, saying that while the events of July 8 were extremely regrettable, he believes the army was provoked.

"It's not something I support," he said. "However I do think that it's not on the other side acceptable that you push your supporters to attack the military knowing that this is going to be the outcome."

That is a version of events that is not accepted by Mustapha Abdel Basset's family.

But Egypt is now a tale of these two very different narratives, and that makes the truth of what actually happened almost irrelevant in a country as polarized as Egypt is today.

Except, that is, to those families trying to come to terms with a personal grief that has become a part of the fabric of a still unfolding history.